Spooky.

Spooky is a word that is fun to say, and feels good in the mouth when you say it. It is perceived as a more positive term than its synonyms, so it can be used to make scary things seem less threatening or terrifying. Perhaps that is why it’s used so much around the time of Halloween. 

Spooky is an adjective that means frightening, scary or creepy, or which is used to describe someone who is easily frightened.

The earliest written record of spooky to mean ‘frightening’ dates back to 1854, and to describe someone who was easily frightened goes back to 1926.

Spooky is derived from the Dutch word spook which is much older. It came into English from Dutch, where it had been used for centuries to mean ‘ghost’.  it shares a Germanic root with similar words in other languages: the Swedish call a scarecrow a ‘spok’, while the Norwegians cale a ghost or spectre a ‘spjok’.

The use of spook as a verb, meaning to move or act like a ghost dates to 1867, and meaning to haunt goes back to 1881, while the sense of startling or unnerving someone is first recorded in 1935. 

In the 20th century, spook took on some new meanings. During World War I, spook was used as a term for a wireless operator or signaller in the army. In the 1940s, people began to use spook as a term for a spy or undercover agent.

So, when you see or hear the word ‘spooky’, remember that it’s more than just a fun word: it also has a long and interesting history.

Sources:
Etymonline
Merriam-Webster
Macquarie Dictionary

Spooky.
#words #spooky #spookyseason

Pedant vs. Teacher

Most people use the term ‘pedant’ in a derogatory way, usually in reference to someone they perceive as being too fussy or too strict about rules. 

On the occasions when I have been called a “grammar pedant”, I have generally responded as though someone is paying me a huge compliment. I invariably say something like “Oh stop it, you flatterer!” or “One day you’ll say that like it’s a bad thing!”

As a lover of the English language and words in general, there are things to we should be paying careful attention. There is value in pointing out where a student needs an apostrophe or a comma in their writing, or where they can express an idea or key point of information more clearly. That is part of being a teacher. It’s my job.

However, I try to restrain myself from correcting people’s grammar on social media, though, for two reasons:

  1. I don’t have time. I have a life to live, and I need sleep to function.
  2. They tend not to like it much.

What many people don’t know is that the word pedant was actually derived from the world of teaching and education. It came to English from either the  Italian word ‘pedante’ or from its descendant, the later Middle French word pédant, both of which referred to a schoolmaster or teacher.  It may be one of those words that came into English from more than one source. The Italian word is derived from the Latin word paedagogantem, which is the origin of the words pedagogue and pedagogy, which are also related to teaching and education. 

By the late 16th century, though, the English were using the term in a negative rather than a neutral way.  ‘Pedant’ had already come to be used for one who placed undue emphasis on the minor details of learning, or someone who focused on details or technicalities  instead of looking at overall issues or taking a wider view of general learning and practice. 

In that sense, correcting someone’s grammar on social media when it is clearly not appreciated is being unnecessarily pedantic. Perhaps that is the distinction that really needs to be made.

Alternatively, it might be a somewhat uncomfortable yet valuable opportunity to improve both one’s learning and professional credibility in an age where prospective employers and customers look at social media profiles before deciding to give a job or order to a particular person. This is particularly true for anyone who should be reasonably expected to have a sound grasp on the language, such as teachers, writers, bloggers and professionals who rely on clear communication in their work. 

Let’s face it. I may not care if someone misspells an uncommon word, or one they’ve only heard and not read, but if they don’t bother to differentiate between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ on social media, I’m neither going to buy their book, nor hire them to write my copy or teach my kids. 

Fussy? Yes. 
Pedantic? Probably. 
Apologetic? Not one bit. 

Reference: Online Etymology Dictionary

Pedant vs. Teacher
#grammar #English #language #words

Grawlix.

Grawlix is an unusual word that most people haven’t heard of, although they’ve probably seen grawlixes many times before. 

A grawlix is a combination of symbols— most commonly the ones above the numbers on the keyboard— used in place of a offensive language in comics, cartoons and illustrations. It works as a visual, rather than verbal, euphemism.

The term was coined in the 60s by Mort Walker , the creator of the comic strip Beetle Bailey, although the practice had already been in use long before it was given a name.The grawlix is a clever and very effective way to express emotions like anger or frustration without actually offending anyone or causing problems with editors and censors. 

An alternative term that has been suggested is the obscenicon, which is very clever but doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of traction. Time will tell, as it always does when it comes to words and language. 

Somehow, grawlix just sounds more evocative and kind of sweary in itself.

Sources:
Lexico
Merriam-Webster
Grammarphobia

 Grawlix.
#language #words #swearing #interesting #language #blogpost

Asterisk.

The asterisk is the handy little star symbol* that we use to indicate that there is more information attached to something, to denote the existence of a footnote, to add emphasis to a word or point of notice, or to blank out letters in offensive words that we don’t want to type or write in full. 

The word asterisk means ‘little star’ and has been used as a noun since the late 14th century— well before the invention of the printing press— while the verb form “to asterisk something” was first recorded in 1733. 

Asterisk comes to use from Latin via Greek, but actually goes back to Proto-Indo-European roots, which is about as far back as any language or individual words can be traced. The PIE root *ster- is the source of the words for star in numerous languages including Hittite, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and, thus, English. 

Therefore, the word asterisk is related to asteroid, aster daisies, disaster, constellation and starfish, among others. It is also a cousin of names such as Esther, Estelle and Stella.**  

More recently, the asterisk also inspired the name of Asterix, the hero of the classic comics by Goscinny and Uderzo. Those books are characteristically full of puns and word play, and the names of Asterix and Obelix are derived from mispronunciations of asterisk and obelisk respectively. 

* located above the 8 on a keyboard
** They are not close cousins, but more like the kind who are jealous of each other because they all want to be the most popular starlet in the family, and only make small talk with one another at family reunions. 

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary

Asterisk
#etymology #words #history #asterisk #language #typography

Tmesis: Abso-flaming-lutely!

Tmesis— pronounced teh-MEE-sis—  is an unusual word that many people will never have heard of, even though it’s the name for something we do frequently and quite naturally.

Tmesis is the name given to that linguistic behaviour by which we divide a word and insert another word into the middle. In the 21st century, the inserted word is often a swear word, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Image by hpgruesen on Pixabay

We do it to add emphasis and increase the strength of what we’re saying. 

The Ancient Greek word temnein meant ‘to cut’, and from that came the word tmesis, which meant ‘cutting’. It refers to the cutting or division of the first word in order to insert the second. 

The practice is centuries old. There are examples of it in Old Irish and Scandinavian poetry, although the earliest written examples of it being used in English only date back to the 1500s. 

Shakespeare used tmesis in a number of his plays:

  • “This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.” — Romeo and Juliet
  • “How heinous ever it be” — Richard II
  • “That man – how dearly ever parted.” — Troilus and Cressida

Tmesis also exists in the poetry of John Donne:


“In what torn ship soever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem,
What seas soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood.” — Hymn to Christ

From these examples, it is clear that the device has always been used to strengthen the idea or emotion being communicated, which is exactly how it’s still used today. 

In Australia, where we seem to love a good swear word and the power it gives our expressions, tmesis is so common that it seems to me to be part of our linguistic identity. Inserting a term such as ‘flaming” or ‘flipping’, or one’s preferred swear word, into words and phrases is a standard part of our speech. From “abso-flaming-lutely’ to “no freaking way!”, Australians have made tmesis their own without ever knowing that it was a literary device or that it has a name. 

Tmesis: Abso-flaming-lutely!
#language #English #grammar #speaking #englishvocabulary #wordynerdbird #blogpost 

Is English A Salad?

Today’s English class was the most fun I have had in a long time. I wanted to exercise the kids’ minds and get them thinking laterally. I also wanted them to enjoy it. A lesson with a difference seemed to me a great way to start our final week of term and inject some interest into our online classroom.

I began by presenting my students with the contention that a box of chocolates is a salad.

This was not a popular suggestion. 

“No it’s not!” one student said… quite defensively, I might add. “Salad is salad. Chocolate is chocolate. You can’t ruin chocolate like that!”

But, I asked, what is a salad if it’s not simply a mixture of vegetables? Chocolate comes from beans… and if you add nuts, or fruit, or herbs like peppermint, then it’s definitely a salad.

We spent quite some time redefining food, presenting the most persuasive arguments we could think of, and debating the nature of reality. 

Every time it sounded like the students might be in danger of reaching a consensus, I made another suggestion. 

Ice cream, on its own, may just be ice cream – but the minute you put it in a cone, or add fruit or chocolate, it’s a salad. 
Coffee, like chocolate, is made from beans. It’s a salad.

“No!” was the response. “Coffee is hot – it can’t be a salad.”

So then I really twisted it up.

Is coffee soup?
Is cereal soup? Or is it a salad with too much dressing?
According to one student, and I quote, “Soup is not what soup is.”

Is the English language a metaphorical salad? Because it’s a mixture of a whole bunch of languages, right? The flavours are all mixed, but the parts are still recognisable if you know what you’re looking at.

Is the English language a sticky weed? Or velcro? Because you know, it takes something from every other language it swipes past. Maybe it’s double sided tape… 

I am not ashamed to say that I really had fun. Despite their groans and protestations, I think they did, too. 

Perhaps the most satisfying moments, though, were two comments made by different students: 

“You’ve just entirely ruined the English language.”

and

“These have been the most problematic fifteen minutes of my life.”

What started out as a brain tease turned into a really interesting discussion about how we use language and define things in our own ways, and often assume that everyone else understands what we’re talking about, and that everyone else agrees with us.

It’s safe to say most of them enjoyed it… but it’s also safe to say that I enjoyed it more. 

Mincing Your Words

We might still hear someone say “she doesn’t mince her words” but do we know what it means?

Anyone who knows me will affirm that I tend to say what’s on my mind, although I try to think before I speak and to be more tactful than I used to be. 

My mother used to remark to me that I had “a neat turn of phrase”, and would occasionally comment to others that I didn’t mince my words. I always took the first observation as a compliment, although I’m not sure it was ever really meant that way. The second, though, always seemed to be rather a strange image because it made me think of minced meat or minced fruit. 

Of course, “mince” is one of those words that has multiple meanings.  It can mean to chop or grind something into very small pieces.  It can mean to walk in small, affected, or dainty, steps. And, when it comes to words, it can mean to modify your language so as to not cause offence. 

All of those meanings relate to the idea of making something smaller or diminishing in size. It’s easy to see how ‘mince’ is related to other words such as diminish, miniature, minute, and minimise. 

The use of ‘mincing words’ to mean making them softer or more moderate goes as far back as the 1500s, and is a term used by Shakespeare himself. 

To mince one’s words means to speak in an indirect or perhaps a diplomatic way rather than stating something directly or bluntly. To do so is to make what you say less of a stumbling block, easier to move past or step over, or even easier to digest. 

Thus, to not mince one’s words means to speak without worrying about how the listener will feel or respond. 

Well, okay. That might sound a little like me. Sometimes. 

That has changed, though, as I have got a little older. 

If I am at home, or comfortable with the company I am in, I still tend to express my thoughts freely. Elsewhere, though, I feel as though I do not feel that freedom. And there are many occasions on which I simply couldn’t be bothered. One cannot, as the saying goes, fix stupid. 

These days, I often choose to simply remain silent when someone says or does something ridiculous, because there is no polite way to say what I am thinking. Thirty years’ experience as a teacher and a fair few years as an actor and performer have helped me refine my ability to keep my facial expression neutral, although I will admit that sometimes I just don’t bother. Some people should be thankful that the look on my face is all they get. 

So, it seems I do sometimes mince my words. On other occasions, I  mince them between my teeth and swallow them. 

Mincing Your Words.
#speaking #words #choosewisely #EnglishAtHome #EnglishTeacher

New Words

As I often explain to my students, language adapts and evolves all the time. People invent new words, or blend old ones, to create new meanings or to explain something in a new way. 

I’m always fascinated by the process, and take interest in which words are being “added to the dictionary”. Even that phrase makes me laugh, because we all know there’s more than one dictionary, and they don’t all add new words at the same time. 

The article titled Five New Words To Watch comes from the Macquarie Dictionary Blog.

The Macquarie Dictionary is my favourite for a number of reasons. Macquarie University is my alma mater, and back when the first Macquarie Dictionary was being written and compiled, I had the privilege of having two of the contributors as my lecturers and tutors in English and Linguistics. More importantly, the definitions are clear and easily understandable, Australian colloquialisms are included, and the pronunciation guide is provided in the international phonetic alphabet, which I love. 

Yeah. Nerdy, I know. 
But if you’ve been following my blog for three minutes, you’ll know I’m unapologetic about that. 

I hope you enjoy this article.
If you’d like to tell me your favourite newish words, or words you’ve invented, I’d be super happy for you to leave a comment!  

‘Then’ and ‘Than’ Are Not The Same Word.

Some word confusions are understandable, especially if they sound the same when spoken. We call those homophones, and they sound the same even if they are spelt differently.  Examples are peak/pique/peak or there/their/they’re.

The confusion between ’then’ and ’than’, however, is a completely different matter.

Sadly, this is happening more and more, especially on social media. I don’t even spend that much time on Facebook, but it feels like I see someone saying something like “Nothing is better then this!”  or “I love you more then anything!” at least twice a day. 

Yes, they are similar. 
However, they are clearly not the same.
They don’t look the same.
They don’t sound the same. 
If one doesn’t mix up ’then’ or ’than’ with ’thin’, there is no excuse for mistaking them for one another. 

I swear, it makes my eyes want to bleed.

The two words’ meanings are so vastly different that getting them wrong just makes the person writing look  either poorly educated or plain stupid, even if they are neither. 

This is one of the best and most self-evident arguments in existence for proofreading what one is writing, anywhere and every time. 

‘Then’ rhymes with ‘when”— which is an easy way to remember that it relates to time or sequence. 
Examples: 
He put on his shirt, then his jeans, and then his boots. 
She ran up the hill, then back down again. 
When you have tidied your room, then you can go to the movies. 

‘Than’ rhymes with ‘man’ and is used for making a comparison. 
Examples:
His piece of pizza is bigger than mine. 
A triangle has fewer angles than a square. 
I would rather stay home and read a book than go to work. 

Knowing which is which, and taking care to use the right words all the time, is a simple way to protect your credibility.

And for the love of Merlin’s beard, if you call yourself an author or a teacher, get it right. It’s not that hard. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “What The Dickens”

Many people assume that “What the dickens?” is a reference to the author Charles Dickens. 

Considering that Shakespeare wrote this expression in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in 1600 and Charles Dickens was born in 1812, that is entirely impossible. 

Instead, ‘dickens’ is a euphemism for ‘devil’, as is ‘deuce’. When Mrs Page says “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…” she really means ‘what the devil”.

It’s a more polite way of expressing strength of an idea or emphasising their intent, in this case, that she has no idea of the identity of the person she is being asked about. It’s exactly the same as people saying ‘heck’ instead of hell, ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God’ and ‘jeez’ instead of ‘Jesus’, and is probably  done for the same reason: superstitious avoidance of using religious terms, or “using in vain” the names of religious entities. 

There’s also a chance that, for some folks, old-fashioned good manners may enter into it, too. 

In short, this is a euphemism: an inoffensive word or phrase used to replace an impolite or offensive one. We use euphemism when we talk about “powdering my nose” or “going to see a man about a dog” instead of “going to the bathroom”, or “bathroom” instead of “toilet”.

Like many of Shakespeare’s words and phrases, “what the dickens” has stood the test of time and is still used as a euphemism today.